“That dog won’t hunt” is a dismissive phrase, used to mean that a particular idea or approach is going to fail.
The expression can also mean that a certain accusation is false.
The phrase likely originated in the South and is often traced back to the state of Texas. It’s said to be an old hunting expression. Of course, for most hunters, any dog who won’t hunt is useless. By extension, a political plan that won’t succeed is just as useless as a dog that won’t hunt. Some people believe that the expression grew out of the older saying, “that cock won’t fight.”
President Lyndon Johnson, himself a Texan, may have helped to popularize the saying.
In 1970, for example, Johnson used the expression when describing a conversation he’d had with the American ambassador to Saigon. LBJ asked the ambassador for his views on a new plan to stop the bombing in the region. In LBJ’s telling, the ambassador “came back strong and said, ‘I just can’t. That dog won’t hunt. We just cannot get that over, it would just blow everything.”
The expression was so closely associated with LBJ that, years after his presidency, writers still attributed it to him.
In 1987, for example, the New York Times ran an opinion piece which was critical of President Ronald Reagan’s plan for Nicaragua. The article was of course titled, “That Dog Won’t Hunt” and read, in part, “Either way, as Lyndon Johnson used to say of losing propositions, ”That dog won’t hunt.”
A few years later, Bill Clinton helped to move the expression further into the mainstream. Clinton, originally from Arkansas, often used the folksy saying in his conversations with the press and with other politicians. Speaking at a press conference before the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, used the expression to wave off concerns about their candidacy:
Both men scoffed at suggestions they would be vulnerable to the same charges of ‘liberalism’ with which Mr Bush demolished Michael Dukakis, his Democratic rival, four years ago, and which Republican leaders were airing anew only hours after Mr Gore’s appointment. ‘They do that every election,’ Mr Clinton said, ‘but this time that old dog won’t hunt.’
John Kerry, who ran for the presidency in 2004, did his best to use Clinton’s style to his own advantage. Kerry was widely seen as a blue-blood, which may have helped him win elections in Massachusetts but may also have been a challenge in southern states.
During a tour of southern states, CNN noted that Kerry was trotting out southern-tinged language even as he downplayed his southern ambitions:
“Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South. Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own,” Kerry said January 24 at Dartmouth College, just three days before the New Hampshire primary and 10 days before John Edwards whupped him good in South Carolina.
Kerry threw out Clintonesque expressions in Mississippi yesterday (Clinton the Arkansan, not the New Yorker), saying “that dog won’t hunt” in response to GOP attack lines.